- The Federal Trade Commission warned food industry trade groups paying social media influencers to include disclosures about paid social media posts promoting an artificial sweetener.
- A recent investigation revealed that many influencer dietitians were paid by the food and beverage industry to spread misinformation about aspartame.
- Influencers used the #safetyofaspartame hashtag to discredit WHO warnings about the artificial sweetener
- According to the WHO, aspartame is possibly carcinogenic when consumed in high quantities.
- Experts agree that it’s generally safe to consume in moderation, but you can cut back by substituting it with maple syrup, honey, or dates.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has issued warnings to two food and beverage industry groups and a dozen social media influencers for not disclosing paid social media posts that promoted an artificial sweetener and other sugary products, the Associated Press reported on November 15.
Influencer dietitians on TikTok and Instagram were reportedly hired by the American Beverage Association to share the posts.
The FTC issued the warnings after recently updating guidelines that require influencers to prominently disclose paid social media posts that promote products for food and beverage companies.
William M. Dermody Jr., a spokesperson for the American Beverage Association, told the AP the trade group was transparent about its partnership with dietitians who “spoke to the science behind the safety of aspartame and the FDA’s determination that it is safe.”
“Importantly, no question has been raised about the substance of these posts,” Dermody told the AP. “We will continue our ongoing commitment to disclose the relationship between dietitians and American Beverage and we appreciate the FTC’s guidance on how to best ensure transparency for consumers.”
A recent Washington Post investigation published on September 13 found that the food and beverage industry paid dozens of influencer dietitians on TikTok and Instagram to spread misinformation about the safety of the artificial sweetener aspartame.
The promotion was designed to blunt warnings from The World Health Organization (WHO)
Many influencers claimed the WHO warnings were clickbait and based on low-quality science. The campaign was shown to have reached 11 million followers and counting.
Aspartame is found in a wide range of foods and drinks, including sugar-free soda and diet foods.
The sweetener, often used as a weight-management tool, is about 200 times sweeter than table sugar, but low in calories, packing around four calories per gram.
However, health bodies recommend a daily limit of 40 mg/kg body weight to limit its potentially cancer-causing effects.
Nutritionist Rebecca Heald says it’s very “concerning” to hear that some dietitians are spreading misinformation about the safety of this popular artificial sweetener.
“As a responsible source of nutrition information, dietitians should base their advice on credible scientific evidence. However, it’s not entirely surprising that this happens, as the internet and social media platforms have been known to amplify unverified claims and sensational information,” she points out.
Misinformation may have caused confusion about the health risks posed by aspartame. So, just how safe is the sweetener?
You may be relieved to know that in small quantities aspartame is unlikely to cause you any harm. However, there are some things to consider before including it in your diet.
“Aspartame has undergone extensive safety testing and is considered safe for consumption by regulatory agencies like the FDA and EFSA. However, some individuals may have specific sensitivities or allergies to aspartame, resulting in adverse reactions,” says Heald.
In very high doses, it can cause headaches, gastrointestinal disturbances, and allergic reactions.
What’s more, it may not be the best appetite and weight management tool.
“Some studies have suggested that artificial sweeteners like aspartame may disrupt the body’s natural appetite regulation mechanisms,” Heald explains. “This can potentially lead to overeating or cravings for sweeter, high-calorie foods, which, in turn, may affect gut health and contribute to weight gain.”
Like Heald, clinic nutritionist Nishtha Patel agrees that aspartame appears to be safe in moderation, but doesn’t necessarily recommend it.
“A large number of scientific research and regulatory agencies around the world seem to agree that aspartame is safe for consumption when taken within the recommended daily intake,” Patel points out.
“Furthermore, it seems that the risk factors are most relevant to certain conditions such as phenylketonuria (PKU), a genetic disorder that stops you from metabolizing a specific amino acid found in aspartame called phenylalanine.”
Still, Patel isn’t sold on the benefits of adding artificial sweeteners like aspartame to your diet.
“I personally do not like to use artificial sweeteners or anything artificial. My philosophy is to go as close to nature as possible,” she says.
If you’re counting calories in a bid to lose or maintain weight, consuming foods and drinks that contain aspartame is one way to continue enjoying usually high-calorie and high-sugar treats like soda.
It may sound obvious to say that moderation is key, but when it comes to aspartame, what does moderation actually look like?
According to the WHO, a can of diet soft drink contains 200 or 300 mg of aspartame, and an adult weighing 70kg would need to consume more than 9–14 cans per day to exceed the acceptable daily intake, assuming no other intake from other food sources.
As the WHO guidance suggests, Heald says you don’t need to eliminate aspartame completely – unless you have an allergy or sensitivity.
Just be sure to maintain a balanced diet that includes a variety of foods alongside it.
If you are looking to cut down on artificial sweeteners like aspartame, or hoping to eliminate them completely, Heald says getting curious about food labels is the best place to start.
“You can identify aspartame on food labels by looking for its presence in the ingredient list, but if in doubt, it’s typically found in sugar-free or diet products, like diet drinks, sugar-free chewing gum, sugar-free desserts, and some low-calorie foods,” she explains.
You might want to consider eating these less frequently or making room for the non-diet versions of these foods – assuming you can enjoy them as part of a balanced diet.
Alternatively, if you want to avoid aspartame, you should choose products that are explicitly labeled as “aspartame-free” or “no artificial sweeteners,” Heald says.
And if you want to add a little sweetness to your food? Patel recommends a little maple syrup, honey, or dates as potential substitutes.
In the social media age, misinformation can be difficult to spot and, when it comes to dietary advice, scrutiny is needed to assess the reliability of any claim.
Where aspartame is concerned, Heald says it’s essential to approach this topic with nuance and consideration for your individual tolerance and preferences.
Aspartame may allow you to enjoy foods and drinks that are conventionally ‘off-limits’ while losing weight, but moderation is definitely key.